Emotional Intelligence: The Critical Strength of Pathfinding Leaders

Kurt WilsonLife StuffLeave a Comment

a man leading a meeting and exhibiting the qualities of emotional intelligence

Being “data-driven” and “reasonable” are seen as hallmarks of modern leadership, but this completely ignores the reality that we humans are unavoidably and obviously emotional.

This raises some obvious questions: how ‘reasonable’ is it to ignore clear facts? Isn’t it far more ‘reasonable’ to face reality (however inconvenient) and make the most of it?

Leaders in general – and Pathfinding leaders in particular – are more effective when they approach the reality of their emotional life as a potential domain of strength to intentionally engage rather than weaknesses to ignore or avoid.

This is a core aspect of the concept of emotional intelligence. Intuitive as this might seem now, this positive framing was not developed until 1990.

It took that long to develop because it directly contradicts the longstanding concern with emotions expressed by Plato around 400 BCE, “Emotion is inferior: emotions are primitive and disruptive to the normal and optimal function of mind.¹”

Pathfinders are an important sub-set of leaders; they push into the unknown, create new opportunities and help equip others to follow.

The importance of emotional intelligence for leaders was underscored in a landmark Harvard Business Review article:

The most effective leaders are all alike in one crucial way: they all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but…they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions. My research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.²

Those wanting to identify – or become – Pathfinding leaders should look for the following qualities:

  1. Self-awareness: Pathfinding leaders forge paths into the unknown, so it is especially important that they are aware of their own emotional landscape. Everyone feels good when things are going well, but Pathfinders need to be especially conscious of their emotional response when expected results don’t materialize – when things look bleak.
    While ‘rational’ leaders might think that ignoring feelings during dark days helps free up energy to move forward – it instead keeps a relevant reality in the unconscious where it exerts unexpected influence that festers and grows over time.
  2. Self-management: While awareness provides access to the relevant emotional data, self-management provides the practical means to adjust course in response to the emotional data.
    Effective pathfinding leaders don’t just recognize their negative emotions, they also have practical methods to address or channel these negative emotions in healthy ways.
  3. Social Awareness: Pathfinding leaders need to be aware of the emotional life of those around them – not just their own. Social awareness includes the ability to be empathetic, which is the ability to detect and understand the emotions of others.
    Pathfinding leaders need empathy to effectively lead people into the unknown because it will be an emotionally – charged journey for those that follow as much as for the leader. In addition, social awareness includes “cognitive empathy” which is the ability that “enables leaders to pick up implied norms and learn the unique mental models of a new culture.³
    Pathfinding leaders especially need this form of empathy because pushing into unknown territory requires understanding and navigating new cultures (e.g., opening a branch in a new market, developing a new customer base, etc.).
  4. Relationship Management: Finally, the emotional intelligence of Pathfinding leaders needs to include the ability to effectively manage relationships.
    This includes the ability to influence others to follow and support the new endeavor, conflict management to address the inevitable differences of perspectives associated with new efforts, building effective teams, and inspiring others to engage the new direction and build effective networks of support.

Much as some might ignore it, the fact that Emotional Intelligence is a critical strength for pathfinding leaders cannot be overstated.

Like a set of tools, it represents interconnected and reinforcing capacities within self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. These qualities are required to navigate the uncharted territories that Pathfinders seek with resilience and effectiveness.

While later stages of project optimization might be better suited to more measurable and analytic approaches, Pathfinding leaders embrace the fact that their leadership is deeply human and connected to the emotional and social dimensions inside and around them.

By leveraging their emotional intelligence, Pathfinding leaders do not merely adapt to change; they foresee it, shape it, and inspire others to embrace the journey.


¹ Zaborowski, R. (2011) Some remarks on Plato on emotions. Retrieved 3/14/24 from: https://dialnet.unirioja.es/descarga/articulo/4218215.pdf
² Beck, M. W. (1998). What makes a leader?. Harvard Business Review, 77(2), 173-174.
³ Ovans, A. (2015). How emotional intelligence became a key leadership skill. Harvard Business Review, 28, pg. 4.

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